President Biden will go to the Middle East this week, touching down in Israel on Wednesday, visiting the West Bank, and then traveling on Friday from Israel directly to Saudi Arabia. This will be the first time a U.S. President will travel from Israel directly to Saudi Arabia. This is a symbolic act intended to signal that Israel relations with the Arab world are improving.
There are so many matters of concern to the United States when it comes to the Middle East, but there is only so much that can be accomplished in a short trip. I will outline just a few issues for this brief article; for your information, the Congressional Research Service produced good, relatively recent U.S. policy consideration papers tied to matters of concern to both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Like any international trip of the President, there could perhaps be announcements of security assistance and/or weapons sales, humanitarian support; maybe a trade deal; and, talk of human rights, though it is not clear how far the Administration will go publicly on this given the sensitivity of the Saudi government on such matters and the U.S. desire to restart relations.
What is likely to be the most important thing the President hopes to accomplish on this trip is to reassure both Israel and Saudi Arabia of U.S. relationships to each, particularly given the backdrop of rising tensions with Iran (e.g., its nuclear program and its regional terrorism support) and the worldwide need of a determined response by Saudi Arabia and OPEC partners to high energy prices (i.e., the need for increasing oil production).
That all being the case, below are some of the key things to know about this trip.
Biden Op-Ed Justifying His Trip to Saudi Arabia
The Washington Post published an Op-Ed (July 10th) from President Biden detailing the justification for the Saudi Arabia portion of his trip at least in part to respond to criticism that he previously said he would isolate the country for its approval of the 2018 Jamal Khashoggi murder in Turkey.
Some of the Op-Ed's key points:
The President wants to “reorient” not “rupture” relations with a country that has been a strategic partner with the U.S. for 80 years.
Energy reserves are critical towards mitigating impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia has “helped restore unity” among the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and is working to help stabilize oil markets with other OPEC producers.
To counter Russia’s aggression and put the U.S. in the “best possible position” to compete with China, the U.S. has to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes - Saudi Arabia is one of those countries.
The United States can play an important leadership role in facilitating relations between not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but also among Arab nations.
The United States needs to continue to align nations against Iran’s lack of cooperation in nuclear control, in particular to get Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal (the Trump Administration backed out of the agreement.)
Normalization of Relations
The United States is hoping within this trip to facilitate concrete measures that can help normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Reporting suggests parties are striving for two seemingly small, but key actions for the near term:
Open Saudi Arabia airspace to flights from Israel going to the Far East. This could cut flight times significantly from Israel to key eastern destinations such as India and China. Gulf Air, Emirates and Israeli airlines are currently permitted to use Saudi airspace for Dubai-Tel Aviv and Manama-Tel Aviv routes, but Israel is restricted from using Saudi airspace for other commercial flights. Israel is also reportedly seeking direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. UPDATE: The Saudi government announced support for both measures (July 15th); i.e., the opening of airspace to Israeli flights and permitting direct flights to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims.
Finalization of a deal to transfer two islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi control. Saudi Arabia had control of both the Tiran and Sanafir islands until 1950, when Saudi Arabia gave them to Egypt for fear that Israel would seize them. Israel captured the islands in 1967 during the Six-Day War, but returned them to Egypt in 1982. In 2017, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that the islands would be returned to Saudi Arabia, but due to the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, this action also required Israeli approval. Israel supposedly provided tacit support, but an implementing agreement has not been completed as final issues remain unresolved.
Several months of reporting suggests that there is a desire among some Arab nations for a regional defense pact to protect against Iranian-sponsored attacks. In support of this effort, Israel has asked (or intends to ask) the President for U.S. support of Israel providing a laser-based air defense system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, to include Saudi Arabia. The system, known as “Iron Beam,” is designed to destroy short-range rockets, mortar bombs, and artillery. Arab countries potentially include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Reporting suggests that Israel will not offer any new gestures to the Palestinians around the President’s visit, and it is not clear that the Biden Administration will do/say anything that departs from current U.S. policy with respect to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians likely want the Biden Administration to reiterate its commitment to the two-state solution, and to work towards reviving the stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
More difficult questions of interest to Palestinians that may not get any clear resolution on this trip include reopening of a US Consulate in Jerusalem that had previously served as the de facto embassy to the Palestinians, and the formal removal of the PLO from the US list of terrorist organizations. Palestinians also want Israel to halt settlements in the East Jerusalem and the West Bank, though Israel continues to move forward on new housing. The Biden Administration stated (May 12th) that it strongly opposes expanded “settlements which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties” and that “Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for a two-state solution."